I was chatting with my Turkish girlfriend, Aysun, a couple of days ago and used the expression ‘The Bee’s Knees’ and she looked at me bemused until I gave her the explanation.
That got me thinking as to where that phrase came from and then to thinking it would be fun to research a few more we often use without thinking, so here you are!
‘The Bee’s Knees’
These days we tend to use it to signify an ‘outstanding person or item’ but it was first recorded in England in the late 18th century when it meant someone or something was small and insignificant. Then in the 1920’s, American slang became popular and ‘The Bee’s Knees’ changed to being what it is known as today.
Other American slang used around that time included ‘The Canary Tusks’,
The Flea’s Eyebrows’ and ‘The Cat’s Whiskers’, which is still used today.
The switch in meaning for ‘The Bee’s Knees’ probably came about as it was similar in pattern and structure as the other sayings.
‘A Pig’s Ear’
A Pig’s Ear
This phrase originated in America in the 1850’s and became a variant to ‘In A Pig’s Eye’. It is used as an expression of incredulous disbelief, similar to the phrase ‘Tell İt To The Marines’.
To ‘Make A Pig’s Ear’ of it came about in the mid 20th century to mean completely botch something or make a complete mess of something. It first appeared in print in the 1950’s in the well known Readers Digest.
A similar phrase, ‘You Can’t Make A Silk Purse Out Of A Sow’s Ear’, dates back as early as the 16th Century. The famous English clergyman, Stephen Gosson, published a romantic story in 1579 known as ‘Ephemerides’.
In his book, the expression referred to people engaged in hopeless tasks. He used the words ”Seekinge too make a silk purse of a sowe’s eare.” The language has been adapted to new English but we still use the phrase today. (Also English Cockney rhyming slang for ‘A Beer.’)
‘Let Sleeping Dogs Lie’
Let Sleeping Dogs…
We use this phrase when we want to say ‘Do not instigate trouble’ or ‘leave a situation alone, otherwise it will cause trouble.’ It was first heard as early as the 14th Century when the English writer, Chaucer, used it in his story ‘Troilus and Criseyde ‘.
It was also used in the French language around the same time. ”Ne Reveillez pas le chien qui dort” translates to ‘do not wake the dog that sleeps’. That phrase probably originated from the Latin phrase, ‘Quieta non movere.’ Do not move settled things.
‘Heard It On The Grapevine’
On The Grapevine
This is my favourite one as regards to it’s origin.
This phrase is used to say that ‘you have heard unofficially’, rather than through an official announcement. It originated in America in the 19th Century. A very clever man, Samuel B. Morse, invented the telegraph system.
It required thousands of metres of telegraph wire to be installed and fixed to huge telegraph poles, that were place several metres apart along the proposed routes. The wires were fixed very high above the ground.
As communities watched the erection of these poles, they often commented that the poles and attached wires looked like the strings that were used to train grape vines to climb. So the telegraph system soon became known as ‘The Grapevine.’
Then, during the American Civil War, the telegraph system became such an important aid, as information could easily be passed across the States. But it also had another use during the Civil War, as rumours were also deliberately sent through the telegraph system to confuse both armies. When people were asked whether a particular story was true, they would often reply, ‘I heard it through the grapevine.’
So there you go! Hope you have enjoyed this little bit of information, great little conversation pieces for your next dinner party!